How to prevent frozen pipes and bursts
Extreme winter weather in recent years has produced freezing temperatures for prolonged periods in the UK. Subsequently, thousands of exposed holiday homes suffered burst pipes and leaks – causing substantial water damage.
The cost and inconvenience caused by the escape of water can be extensive and stressful. A small pipe fracture can release thousands of gallons of water if left unnoticed. The average escape of water insurance claim is an estimated £25,000, however, £100,000+ repair bills for water damage to the buildings, contents and drying out are not uncommon.
Holiday cottage owners have a responsibility to take all responsible steps to prevent burst pipes and maintain the property in a good state of repair. After all, “prevention is the best cure”!
Many burst pipe claims can be mitigated or prevented by following these simple tips.
The complete guide on how to prevent frozen pipes at holiday homes
In the following guide you will learn:
• What temperature to leave an empty house in the winter
• The minimum temperature to keep pipes from freezing
• How to keep pipes from freezing and avoiding frozen pipes in an unoccupied house
• Why you should consider leaving heating on in an empty house
• What to check and how to prepare for winter
• How to keep your boiler in check
• And other empty house winter precautions
Leave the heating on
One of the main causes of frozen pipes is switching the heating off completely when your holiday home is left empty. While this will save money in terms of fuel bills, it will expose your home to sub-zero winter temperatures and the expense of repairing damage should pipes burst.
Most modern heating systems that are common in holiday cottages can still operate with the mains water turned off. A qualified plumber should be able to give you advice about this.
Keeping the heating on will help prevent water still in the pipes from freezing, as water is continuously flowing. It is recommended to leave the heating permanently on (at least 13 degrees C), especially during cold snaps.
- Electric storage heaters
Some types of heating systems, such as storage heaters, do not provide a continuous level of heat that is sufficient to prevent pipes from freezing. By only having the heating on a timer, one hour in the morning and evening, pipes can still freeze as the property is not heated through.
If this is the case turning off the main stopcock and draining down the water tank and pipes is essential during frost.
Using the “frost” setting (usually marked with a snowflake symbol) on your room thermostats may not keep pipes from freezing. If the frost-stat or room/radiator thermostats are set too low, then there is a risk that water pipes may already be frozen by the time the heating is triggered to come on.
- Oil and LPG gas fuelled heating systems
If your boiler runs on oil or LPG gas, ensure that you have sufficient supplies to heat your property for a lengthened period of time over winter. If your property does run out of oil, ensure that the water is turned off at the mains stopcock and the water system is drained down. This should help prevent water freezing in pipes and burst pipe damage to your property during cold snaps.
Your heating oil supplier should also be able to tell you what additional precautions you should take during very cold weather to prevent oil gelling/freezing and blockages.
Drain down the system
If you are leaving your holiday home unoccupied during winter or if your heating isn’t capable of preventing frozen pipes, drain down and shut off the water/central heating system so that there is nothing in the pipes to freeze. Simply turning off the water is not sufficient as there is still a lot of water in the system and tanks, which can cause substantial damage if a burst pipe occurred. Drain the system down.
Get advice from a qualified plumber or heating engineer on how to drain down the water and central heating system to remove the threat of water damage entirely.
Lag pipes and insulate to provide extra protection against frost
Pipes in unheated areas, including lofts, attics, crawl spaces, basements or those fixed to the inside of external walls are most at risk from freezing. Pipes are often situated above the insulation, leaving them exposed to freezing temperatures. Pipes should be lagged using insulating foam sleeving – the thinner the pipe the thicker the insulation should be.
The same applies to external pipes located in outbuildings that are likely to freeze in cold spells.
Don’t forget outside taps
Outside taps and associated pipe work are always a problem in freezing weather. A good solution is to have the facility to isolate the water supply to the outside tap with an internal shut-off valve. Also, protect taps and exposed pipes with insulation.
Allow taps to drip
Letting a tap drip in freezing temperatures keeps water flowing and can prevent water freezing and pipes splitting through the pressure.
Allow warm air to circulate unheated areas
Claims data from previous winters found that water leaking from exposed pipes in the loft was the source of the majority of escape of water claims. Primarily caused by insufficient circulation of warm air.
In addition to insulating, during freezing temperatures leave your loft hatch door open to allow the warmer air from your holiday home to circulate up and around the water tank and pipes.
It is also a good idea to leave cupboard doors under the kitchen sink and bathroom cabinets open so that warm air can circulate around pipes that are exposed to the cold or fixed to outside walls.
Protect water tanks and cylinders
Although all new water storage tanks should be insulated, older ones will benefit from a hot water jacket. Don’t place loft insulation directly under header tanks though, as this stops heat rising from below to warm the tank.
Lagging outside water pipes on its own is not always enough. Fitting additional trace heating (where a low voltage electrical cable with frost thermostat is wrapped around a pipe under lagging) can help prevent water pipes freezing.
Service your boiler
Service your heating system/boiler annually, before winter, to prevent boiler breakdowns during cold spells and to ensure it’s running efficiently. Check that the thermostat is working correctly and consult with your heating engineer about any benefits of adding antifreeze to your heating system.
Prevent condensing boilers freezing and breaking down
If you have a condensing type central heating boiler take steps to prevent it breaking down in freezing weather. In cold weather the external condensate pipe that takes waste water from the back of the condensing boiler can freeze solid, causing the boiler to shut down. Lagging this pipe with water-proof and weather-proof insulation can prevent freezing.
Check your stopcock
Know where your stopcock is, as quickly turning off the main water supply during a burst significantly reduces the damage caused by the escape of water. It is usually located somewhere on the ground floor. Test the stop tap regularly to ensure you can turn it off.
Install an approved device that shuts off your water if a burst pipe is detected, such as www.floodcheck.co.uk
Have an action plan
Be prepared: If you let out your holiday home, make sure you provide guests with information on how to turn off the water and who to contact if a leak is discovered (name and number of your licensed plumber, housekeeper, agent, you). Display this in your guest information folder and in a prominent position so it’s easy to locate in the event of water gushing everywhere.
Also have a prominent notice displayed alongside your heating controls instructing guests not to turn off the heating or turn thermostats below 12°c in winter as this could invalidate your insurance.
Ask someone to check on your holiday home
The risk of a claim multiplies greatly once a property becomes unoccupied. Ask a neighbour or management company to inspect your empty holiday home regularly during severe freezing temperatures. Early detection will help to minimise damage should your pipes freeze. Also, any boiler or heating failures due to the power tripping can be identified.
Check that you are insured
Although these precautions can help prevent burst pipes, there is still a risk that the unforeseen could happen and you could experience water damage. Check your holiday home insurance covers escape of water damage for peace of mind.
Ensure you comply with any winter heating warranties and unoccupancy terms outlined in your insurance policy wording. Failure to fulfil your insurance obligations could leave your holiday home uninsured for burst pipes.
If you need advice on what cover you need, contact one of our insurance experts.
Finally, file your insurance documents in a safe place so you can quickly locate them following a burst.
For more information and facts on burst pipes please see our Infographic.